I think that many fans were surprised, when Del Rey Publishing announced their fall Star Wars book line-up and we found out that the second novel in the official new canon was about the main villain of A New Hope, Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin. Though most of the villains in Star Wars are actually rather beloved, Tarkin seems to be one of those characters about whom you think, “Why do we need to know more about him?”
That’s a question that I think you have to ask yourself going into Tarkin by James Luceno. You have to wonder: Why did Del Rey choose to focus an entire story on the man personally responsible for constructing the Death Star and destroying Alderaan? What more do we need to learn about Tarkin that will deepen our understanding of him, make us perceive him as more than just a heartless tyrant trying to choke the denizens of the galaxy in an iron grasp of terror and control?
In reading Tarkin myself, I found the answers to these questions to be a little less focused on Tarkin and more on the Empire itself. What is happening in this book is worldbuilding. Going into Star Wars Rebels and the sequel trilogy, in which we have hard evidence that there will be an Imperial presence to some degree, we already know a lot about the rebels: what they’re fighting for, and what they are trying to accomplish, which is freedom for all peoples. But we know comparatively little about the mindset of the Empire. I think most people can agree that when a person or a faction does something or sets some goal, whether it’s evil or not to those they’re affecting, they still think they’re right. They have a reason for doing the things they do, such as destroying homes and people’s livelihoods. Tarkin is no exception. In fact, when I was reading the parts of the story that are written from his point of view, I didn’t necessarily perceive Tarkin as a villain. He had goals, and he had reasons that could, from a certain point of view, almost be justifiable. And I think that’s one of the things that Del Rey is trying to show us by focusing on this particular character; even the most twisted individuals think the evil things they’re doing are right. Maybe not good, but right.
I say that there are only parts of the story written in Tarkin’s point of view; most of them are, but there are a few that are written from Emperor Palpatine’s perspective. I enjoyed these scenes; Luceno was able to accomplish through Palpatine some of what he did through Tarkin, and that is making you feel that these individuals really and truly consider their actions to be right and justifiable. I like this sort of complexity when it comes to villains; forcing your reader to look through their eyes and consider their reasoning behind what they do is a great way to challenge your reader’s own opinions and points of view, to make them realize that there is a little bit of genuine sense in what the Empire is doing, though you’re constantly reminded that they’re going about it the wrong way (having a Sith lord for an Emperor, for one).
Relationships were a big part of this story, just not the kind of relationships that you might automatically think of. I’m talking about relationships between villains. We see how, even before his election to the chancellorship, Palpatine favored Tarkin and treated him as a peer; clearly he recognized his assertive qualities early on, which is a credit to the success of his elaborate scheme to overthrow the Republic. It is in one of their scenes together that we witness Tarkin address Palpatine by his first name: Sheev. Some people have a problem with this name and question why it was even mentioned, but in retrospect I feel it was nothing to become upset about. It’s just a name, and it figures very little in the overall arc of the story and Star Wars canon. Call it an interesting bit of trivia or whatever you will, it’s there and I don’t find it offensive. I’m sure it was one of those things that Luceno and/or the crew at Del Rey thought of and said, “Why not?” And why not, indeed. In my opinion, its inclusion only cements the idea that Palpatine and Tarkin have a very great respect for one another, a mutually beneficial relationship rather than the master/minion dynamic that you see so often between the top-level villains and their lackeys. The usage of “Sheev” produced depth, and for that reason I think it was worthwhile.
Tarkin also gives us an opportunity to understand why the Moff and Darth Vader, too, have such a passive respect for one another in A New Hope. The two go on a little adventure together to chase after a band of dissenters that steals Tarkin’s personal vessel. These dissenters are also presumed to be responsible for an attack on the station that Tarkin oversees, which is constructing parts of the Death Star. The interactions between Tarkin and Vader show us how Vader has evolved in the years since his turn to the dark side, as well as just how much the Moff knows about the Sith’s turbulent past. Tarkin is not afraid of Vader, however, and his arrogance is not of the sort that prompts him to poke the Sith, so to speak. Therefore, the two are able to forge a friendship, if you can call it that, founded on their respective skills and allegiance to the same cause instead of a rivalry originating in terror and hatred.
In addition to giving us insight in to the camaraderie between Tarkin and Vader, this story arc puts us into the minds of the dissenters and shows us that they, like the Empire, have their own definitions of what’s right and what’s wrong, and sometimes what’s right to them is not always what’s moral. So it would seem that another goal of this book is to show us that neither the Imperials nor those who choose to rebel against them are always completely good or bad, light or dark. Sometimes there are characters and groups who fall into gray areas, and are only good or bad depending on what lens you are viewing them through.
One of the few stumbling blocks I experienced in this book involved Tarkin’s flashbacks to his youth. They come in between scenes of the primary story arc about the dissenters; therefore they can seem a bit intrusive, because you want to stay with the story arc as opposed to reading through yet another flashback. They serve their purpose, though, I suppose, that purpose being to show how Tarkin became the determined man that the Emperor would trust with the construction of the Empire’s superweapon. There is one particular flashback, however, which Tarkin tells to Vader towards the end of the novel that really frustrated me. Without giving away too many spoilers, throughout the novel there was a process of building a plot thread that promised to explain why Tarkin named his ship the Carrion Spike, a name that has a connection to a significant event that occurred during his youth. When Tarkin was a young man, he was put through a series of grueling trials on his home planet of Eriadu, during which he would have to try and survive in the natural wilds, killing predators and other animals in defense and for food. The culmination of these trials took place in a location called the Carrion Spike, and this event presumably became such a definitive part of Tarkin’s identity that he named his ship after it. When I finally got to the part of the story in which Darth Vader asks Tarkin about his ship’s name and the origin of it, Tarkin describes this final trial to him. To be frank, I found it to be utterly disappointing. I had expected something a little more dramatic, something that showcased how far Tarkin was willing to go in ruthlessness and cruelty to survive (a sort of foreshadowing of his future malice in ordering the destruction of Alderaan). But I didn’t feel that that was what the scene accomplished. Thinking back on it now, I feel somewhat cheated; all of the build-up throughout the rest of the novel leading up to that particular moment seemed almost a waste of time.
Overall, with the above point still rankling somewhat, I enjoyed this book, though I realize that it is not for everyone. Luceno’s writing, while well-developed, involves a lot of description which can be a bit overwhelming for someone who is looking for a quick read or is simply not a fan of a large amount of extraneous detail. I myself will admit that, while I believe Luceno’s style worked perfectly for the dark and militaristic mindset of these Imperial-affiliated characters and settings, I too was annoyed at least once by the inclusion of descriptions that didn’t matter and only served to distract me from the story at hand (one such instance occurred with the describing of the most minor of minor characters as “bald-pated;” I saw no reason for making a such a distinction for an unimportant person whose presence in the story consists of just a few sentences). Call it nitpicking, but it’s little things like that that can pull you out of the immersive experience of reading a good book.
I think this book has a certain limited appeal; if you are interested in Tarkin and in learning more about the Empire, then you will probably enjoy this book. If you’re not really intrigued by either, then you probably will not enjoy it at all. I personally liked the amalgamation of Luceno’s precise, descriptive style with the precise, observant character of Tarkin. The insights to Palpatine’s character as well as a peek into Vader’s years as a full-fledged Sith made Tarkin an even more worthwhile read. For these reasons, I recommend it.
If anyone reading this review has read the book, or has decided to read it, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts!
Tarkin by James Luceno is available on digital and bookstore shelves TODAY!